I've written before about the concept of "Corporate Social Responsibility" and its fundamental incompatibility with the structure of a corporation here.
But a couple of days ago I was talking to a friend who works in the world of corporate philanthropy about this problem, and some ideas have been percolating... I maintain that CSR is fundamentally incompatible with today's corporate structure, because that structure REQUIRES that corporations seek profit for their shareholders--at the expense of everything else. In light of that, CSR is legally bound to be nothing more than a nifty marketing ploy. Corporate structure is at the heart of much of what I identify as the problem in our world today: perpetual growth and intensification of hierarchy. But, I will recognize, the corporation as a concept survives and spreads because it succeeds. Is there a way to reform the corporation, to modify the fundamental structure to make it a tool of "self-perpetuating rhizome" as opposed to a "self-perpetuating hierarchy"? The whole thing smacks strongly of Deleuze's Body-Without-Organs, so this debate seems very important, at least to me...
So, what is the fundamental nature of the problem with corporations?
1. They are structured to fundamentally pursue one, and only one, goal: provide financial return to the shareholder.
2. This dictates that they must grow in some manner in order to continue to return financially in the face of the time-value-of-money. So they are, conceptually, in fundamental conflict with either human ontogeny, the finite-nature of our planet, or both.
Therefore (well, it makes sense to me anyways), the solution is to reverse these basic characteristics by creating a corporation--a conceptual Body-Without-Organs--that embodies the opposite: Structure them to pursue a more humane, compatible, sustainable goal. There is certainly flexibility here, but something on the order of "Generate positive-sum situations for participants and society at large by pursuing projects that increase happiness and quality of life while ensuring outcomes that perpetuate rhizome structure and are compatible with our genetic ontogeny."
I'm no expert on corporate formation, but it seems that this could be accomplished largely within the existing body of non-profit corporate law. Let's take a coffee-house chain. A standard, for-profit coffee-house chain is legally obligated to do whatever it takes--exploit workers, expand at the expense of locally owned businesses, etc.--that increase value for its shareholders. A "corporate-rhizome" coffee-house chain, on the other hand, could be structured as a non-profit corporation, founded on these principles:
- Establish a high-quality-of-life minimum living wage requirement in the corporate "constitution", and cap highest-paid to lowest-paid ratio at 2:1.
- Establish a fund from all "profits" at each local location to a charitable fund chartered to "benefit" the local community with projects as determined by the local staff.
- Create a buying cooperative and other forms of weak-node cooperation between local "nodes" in the chain.
This may sound a lot like existing forms of coops and other charitable vehicles, and it certainly is. In fact, it's taken from a real example already in place. The important thing is that--as a concept--it can serve as a model for how to make any other kind of business into a sustainable, rhizome-style corporation. The real strength of the standard form of corporation is that it provides the potential pay-off as the incentive to start the thing up and to invest your money in it. The critical conceptual shift is that these motivations don't have to be based strictly on money--there are many other types of motivation that can equally motivate people to "incorporate" and "invest" their time, and even their money: family, community, entertainment, solidarity, sustainability, nature, learning, health, interaction, social status, excitement, security, support, etc. In fact, the motivation to gain money is invariably just an intermediary to the desire to gain one of these other, genetically-determined motivating factors. So in a very vague conclusions, I guess that's the key: cut out the intermediary of money and find a way to form a legally-viable vehicle that is STRUCTURALLY BOUND to pursue one of these fundamental motivations, in a sustainable, ontogenetically-compatible manner...